Tag Archive | "prairie pothole"

Vanishing Prairies and Vanishing Protections

Vanishing Prairies and Vanishing Protections

The “Protect our Prairies Act,” offered by Representatives Noem and Walz aims to protect our rapidly disappearing prairies. This protection is urgently needed because grassland loss rates of 10% to 15% recorded in key areas of the prairie pothole region from 2008 to 2011 imply a loss of 50% to 75% of this critical resource within 15 years. Unfortunately, proposed protections offer only a small fraction of protections provided in past farm legislation even though today’s need is vastly greater.

The amendment works by denying crop insurance and other subsidies for five years to farmers that plow up grasslands. Unfortunately, Economic Research Service (ERS) economists’ most recent estimate suggests that denying crop insurance and other program subsidies for five years could reduce grassland conversions in the Northern Plains only as much as 9% compared to conversions that would otherwise occur. Since the Protect our Prairies Act only reduces these crop insurance subsidies by half, and only for four years, reductions in the rate of prairie loss are likely to be less than 4%. This is a step in the right direction, but only a baby step.

A more aggressive approach would deny federal subsidies on sodbusted land permanently, as was the case in farm legislation prior to 2008. Doing so offers double the economic sanction compared to the version of sodsaver analyzed by ERS, and four times the sanction in “Protect our Prairies.” We advance from achieving “the less than 9% reduction” in grassland conversion for the ERS option, to achieving less than 18% reduction in the grassland loss.

According to ERS, high crop prices have become the major driver regarding loss of prairie, even though government subsidies to farmers in the region have greatly increased. Government payments fell to 20% of net farm income, while an earlier study found these payments were 53.7% of net farm income in the South Dakota of 1996-2001. Prices of major crops in the region have tripled.

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Budget Savings, Wildlife Benefits, and Family Farmer Benefits from Limiting Government Subsidies to the Largest Farms

Farm program subsidies, crop prices, and land values all tripled in the Dakotas in just 15 years, as has the loss of prairie pothole grassland.  Eastern North Dakota lost 10% to 15% of wetlands and grassland to crop use in just three years.  At this rate, most of the remaining grassland habitat in this major nesting region for ducks and shorebirds will be gone in just 15 years.

This is not a good time to abandon 25 years of protection for wetlands and grasslands, but crucial protections will vanish unless the Senate amends the farm bill recently passed by the Senate Agricultural Committee.  Fortunately, a budget smart farm bill amendment by Senators Toomey and Shaheen aims to save billions of tax dollars by limiting federal crop insurance subsidies to the largest farmers to $40,000 per farm.  Since the larger farmers own the great majority of the land, these subsidy limits also considerably reduce major farm program drivers for prairie grassland and wetland conversion.

Limiting crop insurance subsidies to $40,000 per farm primarily aims to reduce the federal budget deficit.  This works because subsidy limits especially affect the largest 10% of crop farms, who enjoy 75% of the program payments.  These giant farming operations historically increase their subsidies by adding more cropland.  They expand 1) by buying other farms, 2) by renting, and 3) by plowing up prairie pothole grassland.  But farmers large enough to already reach the proposed $40,000 payment limit no-longer will increase their subsidy by increasing cropland area.  Today’s more than 90 percent of farms, and all small farms, will not be directly affected by the proposed subsidy limits because their government subsidies are less than $40,000.  They own a very small portion of the crop land in the U.S., even though they still make up the vast majority of farms.  Subsidy limits actually help them compete.

Although the farm bill under consideration in the Senate (S3240) virtually eliminates compliance and swampbuster protection, Senator Cardin introduced a Senate amendment (2219) to re-introduce these important protections which have been part of farm programs for 25 years.  We think that this amendment is crucial, but its focus is soil conservation and wetland protection, not grasslands.  The $40,000 per farm limits on crop insurance subsidies, which Senators Toomey and Shaheen introduced in another amendment, reduces program pressures to plow up more prairie grassland and drain wetlands.

For over three decades, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has cautioned that farm subsidies could tilt the playing field toward the largest farmers, who capture so much of the subsidies, and away from more modest, family farms.  Meaningful payment limits address these uneven playing field problems, as well as the above budget and wildlife problems.

Meaningful subsidy limits address perverse incentives to expand cropland acreage, whether that expansion occurs by buying up neighboring farms or by busting out more prairie pothole grassland and draining wetlands.  The Senate has an opportunity simultaneously to achieve substantial budget savings, to provide major wildlife benefits, and to better serve family farms.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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